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What is Malaysian Chinese Food?What is Malaysian Chinese Food?

Chinese merchants and traders have long ago been linked to the Malayan Peninsula in the South China Sea. The natural port of Malacca was a strategic trading post and a vital link to other traders from far across the globe. In order to establish trade and diplomatic ties, the ruling Chinese Emperor ordered a royal entourage to escort Princess Hang Li Po to marry the Sultan of Malacca. This historic juncture marked the first Chinese settlers in the port town of Malacca on the Malayan Peninsula. Many of these early settlers intermarried and integrated with local Malays, forming a unique community called Peranakan.

It was, however, later in history during the 1800s, that the Chinese came in masses to the Malayan Peninsula. It was during the era of the last European colonists, the British, that a large influx of Chinese journeyed to the Malayan Peninsula for employment. Tin had long since been discovered in the jungles of the Malayan Peninsula. It was only now under the British, that large scale tin mining was viable and operational. The booming tin mining industry attracted the much needed workforce of Chinese who came in large numbers, mostly from the Southern provinces of China.  These early Chinese migrants were guest workers who came with the intention of one day returning to their homeland and families. Although the majority of Chinese were employed in the tin mining industry, some were small business merchants and artisans. Various small businesses, those supporting the tin mining industry and those in general soon contributed to the initial economic growth of the country. When Malaysia gained independence from the British in 1957, many Chinese returned to their homeland in China; and many more chose to stay, making up 26% of today's population of 22 million in Malaysia.

The Chinese brought with them not only their skills, culture, languages and customs but also the various provincial styles of Chinese cuisines. Chinese cuisine in Malaysia is mainly Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew and Hakka styles of cooking. Chinese cuisine is generally milder compared to Malay or Indian fare. But thanks to the influence from this multiethnic country, Chinese cuisine in Malaysia, has taken on a spicier touch, often reinventing classic Chinese dishes. Many Chinese dishes are unique in Malaysia and not found in China. Chilies are used frequently to bestow fiery hotness to many of it's dishes such as the famous Chili Crab - also known as Singapore Chili Crab in Singapore.

The best known and most popular variety of Chinese food is Cantonese food. The food is quickly stir-fried with just a touch of oil and the result is crisp and fresh. With Cantonese food, the more people sitting at a meal the better, because dishes are traditionally shared so everyone will manage to sample the greatest variety. A corollary of this is that Cantonese food should be balanced: traditionally, all foods are said to be either Yin [cooling] like vegetables, most fruits and clear soup; or Yang [heat-y] like starchy foods and meat. A cooling food should be balance with a heat-y food and with not too much of one or the other.

A Cantonese specialty is Dim Sum or 'little heart'. Dim sum is usually consumed during lunch or as a brunch, popular on weekends. Dim sum restaurants are usually large, noisy affairs - the dim sum served in little baskets or bowls and are whisked around the tables on individual trolleys or carts. As they come by , you simply ask for a plate of this or a bowl of that. At the end the meal you are billed according to the empty containers on your table. The dim sum has between 10 to 30 items and includes delights such as Steamed Pork & Shrimp Dumplings, Steamed Pork Riblets, Steamed Vegetable Dumplings, Steamed Soft Noodles with shrimp, Steamed Crabsticks stuffed with fish paste, Deep-fried Dumplings with salted eggs, Steamed Red Bean cakes and delicious desserts of Baked Egg Custard to name a few. Cantonese cuisine offers dishes from one end of the gastronomic spectrum - pricey delicacies like Braised Abalone, Shark's Fin Soup, Bird's Nest Soup to meals on the cheap like Mee [noodles] and Congee  [rice porridge] - on the other end of the spectrum.

Far less familiar than the food from Canton are the cuisines from the North and the West of China - Szechuan, Shanghai and Peking. Szechuan food is the fiery food of China, where red pepper and chili really get into the act. While food from Canton is delicate and understated, Szechuan food flavors are strong and dramatic - garlic and chilies play their part in dishes like Szechuan Beef, Ma Po Tofu [Chili Tofu] and the ubiquitous Hot & Sour Soup.

Beijing or Peking food is, of course best known for the famous Peking Duck. Beijing food is less subtle than Cantonese food. Beijing food is usually eaten with hot steamed buns, pancakes or noodles, as rice is not grown in the cold regions of the north of China. In Malaysia, the traditional pancakes served with Peking Duck are often omitted, rice being favored by diners in local Chinese restaurants.

Shanghai food is not easily found in Malaysia. Since most of Malaysia's Chinese are from the South, particularly from Hainan and Hakka, it is quite easy to find food from this region. Throughout Malaysia, one of the most widespread economical meal is Hainan Chicken Rice.  The Hainanese are also famous for Steamboat, an Oriental version of the Swiss Fondue or Japanese Shabu-Shabu. Thin slices of raw meat, seafood and vegetables are cooked at the table in a pot of soup broth heated by hot charcoals. Nowadays 'electric Steamboats' are more the norm especially in restaurants.

Although Hokkien food is rated on the lower end of the Chinese gastronomic scale, it has provided the popular Hokkien Fried Mee; thick egg noodles fried with meat, seafood and vegetables in a rich soy sauce. Another famous Hokkien treat is Popiah or Hokkien Spring Rolls; a vegetable filling of stewed jicama [sengkuang], carrots and bean sprouts are rolled in a rice paper wrapper with minced prawns, fried shallots and lettuce. A very popular Hokkien herbal soup is Bak Kut Teh [also spelt Bakuteh], which in English is translated as 'Pork Rib [Pork Bone] Tea', traditionally served for breakfast as an invigorating tonic to start the day with Ewe Char Koay [Chinese crullers]. Pork ribs are long simmered in a 'tea' of Chinese medicinal herbs and whole cloves of garlic, often with dried shitake mushrooms added for a rich, earthy flavor. A chicken version Chi Kut Teh [also spelt Chikuteh] is also popular.

Teochew food, from the area around Swatow in China, is another style noted for it's delicate and at the same time robust flavors. This cuisine is famous for it's seafood as well as it's Congee [rice porridge]. Teochew Congee is a simple meal; a bowl of rice porridge is served with a medley of small appetizing side dishes, to pick and choose from. The most popular Chinese hawker dish is Char Kway Teow; flat rice noodles fried with fresh shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, egg, and chives made hot to taste with a smoky chili paste.

Hakka dishes are also easily found in food centers. The best known Hakka dish is the Yong Tau Foo. Soy Bean cakes [tofu], bitter gourd, whole red chilies and various other vegetables are stuffed with a fish or seafood paste, then steamed or boiled in a broth and served with a chili dipping sauce.


Mooncakes are a must during the Mid Autumn or Mooncake Festival, when the moon is at it's brightest all year. Rich and sweet, these special celebratory cakes are made with various fillings of sweet red bean paste, white lotus seeds, lotus seed paste and a whole egg yolk, symbolizing the full moon.

In Malaysia, there are countless Chinese restaurants, hawker stalls and Chinese coffee shops "Kopitiams".  Kopitiams typically serve customers coffee and other hot or cold beverages. Independent hawker stalls operate in the same way, offering customers a myriad of culinary delights. There are upscale Chinese restaurants offering Chinese specialties and delicacies, many of which are large scale premises; especially in major hotels, that also cater to special celebrations and wedding banquets. For everyday dining, there are Hawker Centers everywhere selling noodle type dishes and other local fare. Hawker Centers can range from 3 or 4 hawker stalls together in one spot, to huge Hawker Centers with never-ending hawker stalls offering a bewildering array of food. The only dilemma is... What to eat??!






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What Are Malaysian Chinese Dishes?

Hainan Chicken Rice : originating from Hainan in China, this dish is ubiquitous, one of the most popular everyday meal. Chicken is slow poached whole, allowed to cool to room temperature and cut up into bite-sized pieces. Rice is then cooked with the flavorful chicken broth. Cucumbers, scallions and cilantro garnishes the chicken. A small side of the chicken broth is usually served as well. And always - a must-have dipping sauce made of red chilies, garlic, ginger and lime juice completes the meal.

Chili Crab : this easy to make dish [also called Singapore Chili Crab in Singapore] is literally finger-licking good. Blue crabs, Dungeness crabs or Mud crabs have never been so lovingly tossed in a most superb chili sauce!

Steamed Pomfret : White, Silver or Black Pomfret is an ideal fish for steaming because of it flatness. Quick and easy, the fish is sprinkled with fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil & white pepper, allowed to steam till just done and garnished with sprigs of cilantro and chopped scallions.

Hot & Spicy Fish Grouper [Garoupa in Portuguese; Kerapu in Malay] is a popular fish deep fried whole. It's seasoned with salt and pepper, lightly coated in flour and deep fried till crispy. The fish is then topped with a hot & spicy sauce.

Sweet & Sour Fish : This Internationally popular Chinese dish is always a hit. Whole fish such as Grouper [Garoupa in Portuguese; Kerapu in Malay] is the fish of choice; lightly coated in flour and deep fried whole till crispy. The crispy fish is then topped with stewed pineapple, green pepper and onions in a sweet & sour sauce. Pomfret is another fish that is very popular served this style whole.

Bak Kut Teh : Pork Rib Tea - A very popular Hokkien herbal soup [also spelt Bakuteh] which in English is translated as 'Pork Rib [Pork Bone] Tea', traditionally served for breakfast as an invigorating tonic to start the day with Ewe Char Koay [Chinese crullers]. Pork ribs are long simmered in a 'tea' of Chinese medicinal herbs and whole bulbs of garlic, often with dried shitake mushrooms added for earthiness. A chicken version Chi Kut Teh [also spelt Chikuteh] is also popular. Bak Kut Teh, containing all the essential herbal ingredients usually available only in ethnic Chinese medicinal shops, are very convenient for 'brewing' an authentic-tasting, aromatic and nutritious Bak Kut Teh at home!

Fish & Chicken Clay pot : Fish, usually Garoupa is simmered with chicken in a clay pot - a hearty & delicious dish to eat with plain steamed rice and a side of hot sauce or fresh sliced chilies in soy sauce.

Yong Tau Foo : Tofu stuffed with Fish Mousse - Tau Foo means tofu or soy bean cakes in Chinese dialect. Deep fried tofu cakes and vegetables - bitter gourd, whole red chilies, zucchini - are stuffed with a fish mousse or pate, then steamed or boiled and served with a dipping sauce.

Kai Lan with Oyster sauce : Chinese Kale, also called Chinese Broccoli, is quickly blanched whole in hot boiling water till tender. It's dressed very simply with a little oyster sauce,  a dash of sesame oil and some fried garlic on top.

Clay Pot Rice : This one-pot rice meal has a smoky exotic aroma, best baked with a sweet Chinese sausage called Lap Cheong. The crispy part of the rice at the bottom of the clay pot is savored. Clay Pot Rice can now be found with a variety of meats or seafood, from beef to ostrich. Many restaurants also have clay pot 'dishes' on their menus - Clay pot Mee [noodles], Clay pot Tofu [soy bean cake], Clay pot Fish, Clay pot Soup etc. Food cooked in clay pots are not only flavorful, but retain the most nutrition as well.

Malaysian Chicken Curry : is a typical chicken curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Made in Malaysia Meat Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' curry! Some ingredients vary - Indian homes might cook with ghee [clarified butter], add whole spices like star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves, mustard seeds or fresh curry leaves.

Malaysian Fish Curry : is a typical fish curry cooked in almost all Malaysian homes. This basic recipe uses a Fish Curry Powder. It has just the right blend of spices for an authentic 'Malaysian-tasting' fish curry! Some ingredients vary - Indian homes might cook with ghee [clarified butter], whole spices like mustard seeds, caraway seeds and cumin seeds, fresh curry leaves, tamarind juice, coconut milk and yoghurt.



What Are Popular Malaysian Chinese Noodles?

Char Kway Teow : Fried Flat Noodles - fresh flat rice noodles are stir fried in a little lard with shrimp, cockles, bean sprouts, egg and chives. A smoky chili adds kick to this popular noodle dish. The island of Penang in Malaysia, well-known for it's hawker food, is especially famous for it's Char Kway Teow.. hands-down the best in the country!

Penang Sar Ho Fun : Scramble Egg Sauce Noodles - flat broad noodles [Chow Fun type noodles] are first briefly charred in a hot wok and set aside. Pork, pork liver, shrimp, squid, fish balls, crabmeat and leafy greens are stir fried. Broth is added and thickened with cornstarch. A lightly beaten egg is streaked into the gravy. The seafood, meat and gravy is then poured over the charred noodles and served with a condiment of fresh green chilies pickled in vinegar.

Penang Hokkien Mee : Penang Hokkien Noodles - this is a Penang style spicy noodle soup dish, elsewhere called Prawn Mee [Hae Mee or Prawn Noodles]. Thin rice vermicelli [Mei Fun or Beehoon] and yellow egg noodles [Chow Mein] are served in a soup, made from both a meat broth [pork] and a seafood broth [shrimp]. The tasty soup is spiced with a pan-roasted chili sauce - a key ingredient. The dish is garnished with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, fried shallots and a spoonful of the pan-roasted chili sauce - to add if you desire a major chili high!

Koay Teow Th'ng : Flat Rice Noodles in Soup - fresh flat rice noodles are served in a clear soup broth, topped with fish balls, slices of pork, chicken, golden brown garlic bits and chopped scallions. A condiment of sliced fresh red chilies in soy-vinegar usually accompanies the dish.

Wonton Mee : Wonton Noodles - Thin egg noodles are first cooked by blanching in boiling water. A clear soup broth is poured over the noodles then garnished with wontons [pork dumplings] and char siu [Chinese barbequed or roast pork] Wonton Mee is also served dry, usually with a small bowl of soup on the side. Fresh sliced green chilies pickled in vinegar is also served as an accompaniment.

Penang Curry Mee Penang Curry Noodles - this is a famous Penang noodle soup dish. It is often mistakenly called 'Curry Laksa' -  which is altogether a different noodle dish in Penang called 'Laksa Lemak' or sometimes 'Laksa Siam'. Thin rice vermicelli [Mei Fun or Beehoon] and yellow egg noodles [Chow Mein] are served in a spicy coconut curry soup with fresh cockles, shrimp, cuttlefish, pig's blood cake, fried & deep fried tofu, bean sprouts and a hot pan-roasted chili sauce.

Chee Chong Fun : Rice Sheet Rolls - usually eaten as breakfast, flat sheets made from rice flour, sometimes with some dried shrimp embedded, is steamed soft then cut up and topped with soy sauce, hoisin sauce, chili hot sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. 

Mee Suah : Thin Wheat Noodles - fine wheat flour vermicelli noodles are served in a bowl of clear soup broth with a whole roasted duck leg and garnished with chopped scallions.

Ewe Char Koay : Chinese Doughnut - These long, usually twin pairs of dough are deep fried and eaten for breakfast - great for dunking in coffee as well as a tea-time snack. It is also served with a very popular Hokkien Chinese herbal soup Bak Kut Teh.

Hoo Wan Tung Hoon : Mung Bean Noodles - also called Glass noodles, are served in a clear broth with fish balls and topped with fried garlic bits and chopped scallions.


What Are Malaysian Chinese Hawker Dishes?

Lor Bak : Deep fried Pu-Pu Platter - homemade minced pork sausage [wrapped in dried bean curd sheet], prawn fritters, soy bean cakes, preserved egg and cucumber wedges are served with 2 kinds of dipping sauces - one, a dark soy gravy-like sauce and the other a sweet chili sauce. Metal hair bobby pins that were once used as picks, are nowadays replaced with toothpicks.

O' Chien : Fried Baby Oysters - local baby oysters are fried into a sort of omelet made out of a mixture of cornstarch, eggs and chopped pickled Chinese radish. A sweet & hot chili dipping sauce is served on the side.

Popiah : Steamed Spring Rolls - a vegetable filling of stewed jicama [sengkuang], carrots and bean sprouts are rolled in a rice paper wrapper with minced prawns, fried shallots and lettuce. A sweet & hot chili sauce is served on the side. It is sometimes deep fried.

Joo Hoo Eng Chai : Cuttlefish Salad - an usual salad of dried cuttlefish and Kangkong [Water Convolvulus also called Water Spinach]. The dried cuttlefish is first reconstituted and served together with Kangkung, cooked by blanching in boiling water. The salad is then dressed with a special sweet and hot sauce and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

Lok Lok : Chinese Fondue - fresh seafood like shrimp, squid, cuttlefish, fish balls and other delicacies are skewered on bamboo sticks. Diners help themselves, by dipping the skewers into a cauldron of rapidly boiling hot water to cook. Different sauces from sweet to tangy to hot are served.

Koay Kak : Fried Rice Cubes - steamed glutinous rice cubes are stir fried in lard on a hot griddle with soy sauce, garlic, diced salted Chinese vegetable, bean sprouts, chives and chili sauce.

Ais Kacang : Shaved Ice Dessert - a favorite local dessert, also called ABC. Sweet red beans, agar agar [seaweed jelly], barley pearls, sweet corn and fruits are covered with shaved ice, then laced with rose syrup, brown sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk. Great summer cooler!




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